Hurricane Sandy has already sent literal swells crashing into North Carolina and metaphoric ones into the two presidential campaigns. Mitt Romney had to cancel a Sunday's worth of campaign rallies in Virginia, where RealClearPolitics shows the two campaigns effectively tied in the polls. He's instead headed to all-important Ohio, where he plans to campaign through Tuesday. President Obama also cancelled a Monday Virginia event, as well as one in Colorado scheduled for Tuesday, in order to return to Washington D.C. to monitor the Frankenstorm's progress. Today, he'll visit a storm response center in the nation's capital before heading south to largely unscathed Florida to do a little campaigning.
More than mere campaign events, however, the biggest political casualty of this super storm may well be millions of potential early voters both campaigns have been courting heavily in recent weeks. Maryland's governor thinks early voting in his state will definitely be affected, while the governor of Virginia — which technically only allows early absentee voting in very limited circumstances — says restoring power to voting facilities will be a top priority, up there with hospitals and police stations.
"Obviously we want unfettered access to the polls because we believe that the more people come out, the better we're going to do," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told CNN's State of the Union earlier today. "And so to the extent that it makes it harder, you know, that's a source of concern. But I don't know how all the politics will sort out." He added, "The best thing we can do is to focus on how we can help people and hope it all clears out by next weekend."
While unlikely, the prospect of stranded voters and closed voting facilities on Election Day is surely bouncing around in several frazzled campaign staffers' minds right this instant.
Ultimately, Hurricane Sandy may turn out to be just the October Surprise political pundits have been waiting for. For Obama, it's an opportunity to get in a few good photo ops bucking up morale in disaster-affected areas — or to mismanage the whole thing horribly and remind voters of the debacle that was Katrina. (Remember what that did for President Bush's approval ratings?) For Romney, it provides an opportunity to look the presidential part — not that he can actually do very much — or to highlight just how brutal some of the budget cuts he and Paul Ryan are proposing: According to some back-of-the-envelope calculations by Mother Jones, FEMA could take up to an 80 percent forced cut, while congressional Republicans have already stripped nearly half a billion dollars from the very agency currently tracking Sandy across the Atlantic.
Yet, much like disaster relief teams in the coming days, it may be a while before reporters can sift through the political debris from Sandy to learn which of the presidential hopefuls weathered the storm better.